That Pesky Nexus

by Jason Dzubow on May 13, 2014

To receive asylum in the United States, an applicant must show not only that he faces persecution in his home country, but that the feared persecution is “on account of” a protected ground (race, religion, nationality, particular social group or political opinion).

GW law students react to Todd and my appointment to the adjunct faculty.

GW law students react to Todd and my appointment to the adjunct faculty.

This means that if MS-13 gang members want to kill you because you refuse to join the gang, you probably won’t qualify for asylum. On the other hand, if the Ethiopian government wants to detain you for a year because you attended an anti-government protest, you probably will qualify. To me, the regime created by the nexus requirement seems incongruous and unjust.

I’ve seen this play out in many of my cases, where we often have to shoehorn our client’s claim into a protected category. For example, Eritreans who flee the National Service (really, a form of never-ending slavery) would not ordinarily receive asylum since the (very serious) harm they face for trying to escape is not generally “on account of” a protected ground. One strategy to help such people obtain asylum is to show that the Eritrean government views them as enemies. In other words, that it imputes to National Service evaders an anti-government political opinion. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. But the question is, why do we have an asylum system that forces us to contort legitimate claims so that they fulfill the nexus requirement?

This is essentially one of the questions that my esteemed co-professor Todd Pilcher and I asked our students on their final exam. As an aside, this was the first year that either of us taught a law school course (Asylum and Refugee Law at George Washington University Law School). Even having practiced primarily asylum law for the last 10 years, it was amazing how much I learned by teaching this class. I also learned that it is better not to know what goes on behind the scenes with grading. Suffice it to say that as a mere adjunct professor, we had quite a bit of power to grade as we wished; more power, actually, than we were comfortable with (but on the bright side for our students, despite a killer exam–sorry about that–they did very well).  

But back to the nexus requirement. In theory, it exists because it reflects our values. We care about political expression and the exercise of religion, and so we protect people who face persecution on those grounds. In reality, it exists because some Dead White Men created relatively arbitrary categories that seemed appropriate in the post-WWII world. So–as we asked our students–would we be better off without it?

The students were split in their responses, and obviously reasonable people can differ (though of course we flunked everyone who disagreed with us).

For me, the nexus requirement is an arbitrary way to limit the number of people eligible for asylum. That the nexus requirement has worked so well in this regard is more an accident of geography than anything else. It just so happens that the main reasons people from Mexico and Central America flee their countries are not reasons that easily fulfill the nexus requirement (fear of gangs and cartels). Imagine if we lived next to China, where many refugees face political persecution (or persecution for forced family planning, which is considered political persecution under U.S. asylum law). Or what if we lived next door to Iran or Afghanistan, where people flee due to religious persecution. The nexus requirement would do little to stem the flow of refugees from those places.

So if we eliminated the nexus requirement, how could we keep from being overwhelmed by asylum seekers?

The first question, I suppose, is, Would we be overwhelmed by asylum seekers if we gave asylum to everyone who faces persecution irrespective of nexus? Certainly the number of people eligible would go up. And we have seen that asylum seekers respond to policy changes (witness the surge of credible fear interviews at the U.S.-Mexico border). So it certainly seems possible that the number of asylum seekers would increase, but by how much, no one can say. If I had to guess, I would say that the increase would not be as dramatic as we might imagine. Why? Because asylum seekers who want to come here will come here and try for asylum regardless of the odds. Just because you have a one in ten million chance of winning the lottery does not mean you won’t play. So while I suspect that if the nexus requirement were eliminated, more people would be incentivised to come here, I am not sure how many would actually change their behavior and make the trip.

There are, of course, other ways to limit the number of asylum seekers. One way is to change the level of proof. Instead of a 10% chance of future persecution, how about a 50% chance or a 75% chance. While this would reduce the number of people qualifying for asylum, it would also result in legitimate refugees being returned to countries where they face persecution. Also, given the arguments above, I doubt it would do much to actually reduce the number of people coming here for asylum.

Another option would be to resettle anyone qualifying for asylum to a third country. In other words, if a person wins asylum in the U.S., she will be resettled in Argentina. While this would likely reduce the number of people seeking asylum here, I doubt whether many other countries would agree to such a scheme. Also, I imagine there would have to be some sort of reciprocity, so if people were granted asylum in Greece, for example, they might be resettled here. While this plan eliminates some of the incentive for seeking asylum in the U.S., I just don’t see how it could work in the real world.

In the end, the nexus requirement is not going away anytime soon. I do think it is helpful and important to recognize, however, that the requirement really is quite arbitrary. It would do far less to limit the number of asylum seekers if we lived in a different part of the world or if conditions in our neighborhood changed. But for the foreseeable future, we lawyers will continue looking for ways to fit our clients’ cases into one of the protected categories.

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